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First aid flights arrive in Tonga after massive volcanic eruption and tsunami

Tongan Foreign Minister Fekitamoeloa 'Utoikamanu (right) is accompanied by Australian High Commissioner to Tonga Rachael Moore as they receive a Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster III aircraft delivering Australian aid at Fuaʻamotu International Airport on Thursday.
Handout, Australian Defense Force
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AP
Tongan Foreign Minister Fekitamoeloa 'Utoikamanu (right) is accompanied by Australian High Commissioner to Tonga Rachael Moore as they receive a Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster III aircraft delivering Australian aid at Fuaʻamotu International Airport on Thursday.

Updated January 20, 2022 at 11:12 AM ET

The first aid flights to arrive since a massive volcano hit the Pacific island nation of Tonga last week landed in the capital Thursday, bringing bottled water, shelters, generators and communications equipment.

The military transport planes dispatched by New Zealand and Australia arrived in Nuku'alofa at an airport that days before had been covered in ash from the eruption of Hunga Tonga–Hunga Haʻapai Saturday evening local time. That eruption thrust ash 100,000 feet into the sky and triggered a tsunami with effects felt as far away as the U.S. West Coast.

It also knocked out an undersea fiber-optic cable that was a vital communications link to the remote archipelago. The huge ash clouds also made satellite phone communication nearly impossible, and Tongan officials were cut off from the rest of the world just as they were needing to request assistance. Cellphone provider Digicel says it has been able to restore service to some areas.

The New Zealand government has confirmed three deaths in Tonga as a result of the Jan. 15 eruption — one of the strongest in decades — with an estimated force of 10 megatons, or more than 500 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in the final days of World War II.

Soon after the eruption, Koniseti Liutai, a Tongan who lives in Australia, was talking with family in the islands, who were "excitedly showing us the volcano's activities," he told The Associated Press. Then, he said, "we heard the explosion and the big bang and everything went dark."

"Then the next information we got was the tsunami warning and then the tsunami hitting; we were all absolutely fearing the worst," he said.

Safe drinking water is one of the most immediate needs. The volcanic ash and seawater have contaminated the island chain's potable supply and the government there has advised people to drink only bottled water. The resulting tsunami also caused extensive damage in the low-lying islands.

New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said in a statement that a military C-130 Hercules had been dispatched "carrying humanitarian aid and disaster relief supplies, including water containers, kits for temporary shelters, generators, hygiene and family kits, and communications equipment."

"The delivery of supplies will be contactless and the aircraft is expected to be on the ground for up to 90 minutes before returning to New Zealand," Defense Minister Peeni Henare said.

Tongans had to clear the runway by hand to make way for aid flights, Ashley Westerman, who is reporting on the disaster, told Morning Edition. The aircraft from New Zealand, which the ministry later confirmed had arrived, could not have landed earlier due to the thick ash, the Defense Ministry statement said.

In a separate statement, New Zealand's Defense Forces said two ships carrying bulk water supplies, humanitarian aid and disaster relief supplies had been dispatched to Tongan waters on Tuesday and were expected to arrive on Friday.

In this image taken from video, Deputy President of the Tonga Australia Chamber of Commerce Koniseti Liutai unpacks relief donations for Tonga from a vehicle on Wednesday, in Sydney, Australia.
/ AP
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AP
In this image taken from video, Deputy President of the Tonga Australia Chamber of Commerce Koniseti Liutai unpacks relief donations for Tonga from a vehicle on Wednesday, in Sydney, Australia.

Meanwhile, Australia's military confirmed Thursday that a C-17 transport with a similar manifest of disaster aid, had also arrived.

"The delivery of supplies today is part of the initial package of urgent humanitarian assistance," according to an Australian Department of Defense statement.

Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton said in a tweet: "The men and women of the Australian Defense Force will be working hard to help Tonga get back on its feet and recover from this catastrophic event."

Australia has also deployed one of its warships, HMAS Adelaide, to aid in the effort, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said.


This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.